Bad books/Good books

I recently finished reading a book that I found so poorly constructed and lazily written I was kind of astonished it had been published by a reputable house. It read to me like a poorly edited first draft by a talented writer. Vast stretches consisted of dialogue only. There was no sense of place. The only way you could tell where you were was because names of streets and other landmarks were dropped in. Oh, and the cover copy announced where it was set, which, truly, was my biggest clue.

I’ll be honest it kind of made me angry. I know lots of writers who work their arses off getting it right and here’s this writer just phoning it and getting away with it.

But then I talked to a librarian friend of mine, who liked (though didn’t love) the book and whose students enjoyed it. She also mentioned that it had some very enthusiastic reviews, which I immediately looked up. They left me bewildered and a bit cranky. If someone can phone in a crappy first draft and suck in the readers and reviewers why bust a gut to write the best books we can? Why do we bother doing research? Why aren’t we phoning them in too?

Now, of course, my reaction assumes that there’s a shared understanding of what makes a good book and good writing, which clearly there’s not. Each reader is bringing something different to the page and thus reading something different. But I feel like even when I hate a book I can at least see what other people are seeing it. I think I get why some people love Moby Dick even though it bores me into a coma. I don’t think it’s badly written. It’s just the last book in the world I want to read.

Not this time. This book was shoddy. There was no there there.

But maybe that’s exactly what it has going for it? The less there is on the page, the more a reader can bring to it, and the more they can make the book their own? And that what I think of as “good writing” just gets in the way of that kind of reading experience.

Who knows? Certainly not me. I don’t think I’ll ever understand the appeal of this particular book or the many books just like it. But it doesn’t really matter because it clearly wasn’t written for me. And heaps of wonderful books that were written for me are getting plenty of love too.

And, yes, I will keep writing the best books I can. There’ll continue to be readers out there who think they’re rubbish. Because those black squiggles on white paper? We can interpret them any old way we choose.


  1. David Moles on #

    I had a similar experience recently with an award-winning historical novel that as far as I could tell had no sense of place or time and no voice, just the names of a few neighborhoods and a few famous dead people, and cameo appearances by the famous dead people’s famous bad habits. I kind of wanted to call up the award jury and point this out to them in case they’d missed it, but by then it was a little late.

  2. Cat Sparks on #

    Funny you should mention Moby Dick… I’m currently listening to an audiobook version and loving it!

  3. Julia Rios on #

    I’m reading a history book right now, and finding that while it has interesting subject matter, and some good primary sources, it falls into many of the same slacker traps that my undergrad term papers did.

    1) The author seems to occasionally panic about insufficient wordcount, and repeat the same info in five different ways. 2) The author throws in quotes with very tenuous (if at all even detectable) connections to the surrounding prose.
    3) The author cannot decide how conversational it is acceptable to be with the prof reader.

    I am baffled by the apparent lack of editing, as it does indeed seem like an unpolished first draft, yet I’m actually enjoying the book. Reading it is restful because I can let my mind wander for several pages, secure in the knowledge that anything really interesting will reappear a paragraph or two after I remember to focus.

    Still and all, I hear you.

  4. Book Chic on #

    While I do love reading other authors’ opinions on books they didn’t particularly like, it kinda sucks cuz they won’t say what the book is. And now I’m curious as to what book it was, lol. Can you provide any hints at all as to what it is?

  5. Diana Peterfreund on #

    I’ve been wanting to blog on a similar topic. I recently read a book that is getting RAVE reviews every single place where a book can be reviewed. I hated it. I could barely get through it. I only kept reading it because I was DEEPLY curious as to what all these other people were seeing that I could not. It had nothing going for it — flat, predictable, unsympathetic characters, boring plot, sagging middle, pedantic, on the nose writing, awkward construction, no twists, no turns, no surprises anywhere. And it was being hailed as one of the most accomplished books of the year! I didn’t get it. I don’t get it. I keep waiting for ANY review that presents my point of view, but even the ones that agree with me seem to rave.

    Maybe they are afraid of pointing out that the emperor has no clothes?

  6. Patrick on #

    Man, if you guys are going to talk about books that way, I wish you’d name them. I mean, I certainly understand why you don’t, but from my own curiosity I want to test the books. It’s one of the reasons I read Dan Brown. I happen to like Dan Brown, but Da Vinci Code wasn’t his best book…

  7. Eric Luper on #

    I just hope it wasn’t my book you were reading!

  8. beth on #

    *shudder* HATE Moby Dick. HATE HATE HATE. It’s number one on my worst books in the world list. Yes, I have a list. And MD is #1.

  9. Rob on #

    You could test your theory on reader-supplied-worlds by writing a book that is completely blank. If, once published, it gets good reviews, you’ve added evidence to the idea. Otherwise, you’re left considering other possibilities. And heck – it probably wouldn’t take much time to write! You could do a whole trilogy in an afternoon!

  10. Serafina Zane on #

    Sometimes reading really, really horrible books make me kind of perversely hopeful, because if this book got published, then why can’t i?

    Also, i just realized they’re talking about YA books on the radio right now. odd.

    Reading lots of positive reviews of books I hated confuses me. Couldn’t they see the abject insane plot holes and flat characters?

  11. Mark on #

    I think you have a double-whammey effect going on here. As an expert you simply can’t enjoy something like a simple consumer can. I am sure a movie director can’t enjoy a movie without analyzing, or a musician can’t listen to a song without analyzing, I am guessing experienced writers can’t read a book without analyzing.

    Also, because of your experience and knowledge you see more things than the average person does, care about such things more. For example, in my writing group there was a large discussion about the first line of a book being the most important one in the whole book, that it sets the tone and most agreed decisions to read or not read were based on that first line. When I mentioned it to my non-writer friends they burst into laughter, nobody had EVER looked at the first line of a book to make a decision about anything. Both approaches are valid but it shows how a professional in their area of expertise are more sensitive to subtleties than many of the simple consumers.

  12. CB James on #

    I think I read that book. In fact I’m sure of it.

  13. Chris S. on #

    Hate when that happens – such an yucky feeling. I find myself torn between “Ugh, does the entire world have no taste?” and “What am I missing that everyone else can find?”

    The former leaves me feeling grumpy and sour; the latter feeling alienated and not-invited-to-the-birthday-party.

  14. Carrie R. on #

    I’ve definitely heard people talk about liking books with “blanks.” A “blank” sense of place or protagonist or whatever so that the reader can insert their own sense of place or self or hero.

    And you’re right, usually when I read a book getting rave reviews I can see what people like about it even if I don’t particularly like it. But I’ve also noticed some that I can’t figure out what everyone else is seeing and what I’m missing…

  15. pixelfish on #

    Recently at one of my writing groups, a reader told me he thought my setting was too generic fantasy. And at first, I was all “What is he talking about? There’s X and Y and Z and they aren’t generic.” And then I realised that in an effort to not over-describe, I’d gone and stripped out most of the things that made my setting unique. Over-description wasn’t the problem–the WRONG description was the problem.

  16. Hillary! on #

    Hmmm…I really wish I could find books that i hate because they were so poorly written. But I’ve only ever read two books that I disliked, and even then only marginally so. Wait! That’s a lie! I hated a whole series by a man. The series was very misogynistic, the main character was a 14 year old girl, and her character was totally written from the perspective of a man. I hated it. The other two just had very vague plotlines. Almost as if they were just the second or third draft. The vampire one has potential, the fairies that aren’t fairies (not Justine’s fairies are FANTASTIC!) one was weird in a not good way.

  17. Patrick on #

    Good books, bad books,
    You know I had my share;
    When my woman left home
    With a phoned in book,
    Well, I still dont seem to care.

    Sixteen: I fell in love
    With a book as raved as could be,
    Only took a couple of days
    Till it had disappointed me.
    They swore that it would be all right
    And I’d love it in the end
    When I finished that last page
    I’d missed another trend

  18. ambeen on #

    I hate Moby Dick too. I just don’t get it. Unfortunately I’ll be reading it in its entirety this fall for a class.

  19. Laini Taylor on #

    I get really irate over the same thing! Especially right now, as I slog through draft 3 and feel like my head is going to come apart. I get especially angry about books that could clearly be better, where the writer is obviously gifted, but you feel like they weren’t up for any editorial feedback, and somehow got away with it. I want to shake them and scream, “Be better, damn you!”

  20. Lynne Jonell on #

    This post was on the money for me. I’m currently struggling to get through a book that is being raved about, and I find myself getting actually upset. This was a surprising enough reaction that I’ve spent some time trying to figure it out.

    I think what makes me good and grumpy is that the author in question clearly can write, but I can’t imagine that he/she (sorry, Book Chic, I’m NOT going to get specific) was seriously considering or respecting the middle-grade readers for whom it was intended. I’m finding it precious and self-conscious, written for reviewers rather than children, and I would be intensely interested to meet the real live child who actually gets through it without repeated prodding from an adult.

    I would love to see what the author in question could do with some guidance from an editor like mine, who has a nose for the preachy and pretentious, and scrawls her violet pencil all over the manuscript when I stray too close to P & P territory.

    And you know? Moby Dick could have used some serious editing, too.

  21. Leahr on #

    I never read Moby Dick and I am grateful I never had to. I did have to read Heart of Darkness and while it was hard to get through, I didn’t hate it with the passion that the rest of my (AP) class despised it with.

    There was this one book that I waited for eagerly, by an author I love (and still love, hence I will not name them)expecting a work of greatness consistent with other books I’ve read of theirs. It read like something they had written as a twelve year old and not edited a word of since. I was very disappointed in them.

    I could see traces of the quality that made them a great writer in the past/future/whichever twilight zone they write in, but the traces were small and few and far between. I do not know what happened, I really don’t. There is another book by this author coming out, and I may buy it, but if it is no better I may be forced to give up on all their future books, which would be a real shame.

  22. Rosalie on #

    I appreciate good writing, the time and thought (and frustration and research and triumph) put into it, so do bother to write well. For one, if I write well, I feel good and I tend to think greatly of those who write well, not sloppily. I can definitely tell when there is a lot of active and subconscious thoughts going on and what blossoms from the subconscious id abstract and beautiful. Things you didn’t even realize you wrote in: extended metaphors and symbolism, each reader will see differently and some may not spot all of it, they will see different aspects of the same metaphor.

    Love, Rosalie

  23. Carbonel on #

    I remember my first real writing teacher had a sign on his desk. “One way to get an “A” is to be perfectly brilliant. The rest of you will have to work at it.”

    Some people have qualities–including happening to get very lucky in the editor who read the submitted M.S.–that transcend their obvious (cough. Heinlein. cough.) flaws. They are very. Very. Very, Rare.

    Gosh. It’s Fun To Have Capitals In.

    I promise not to Abuse the Privilege…


  24. Carbonel on #

    P.S. Speaking of reviews, one of my Regular Teen Patrons turned in a “read 3 form” and she’d read all your Magic Books in one go and adored them. Just thought you’d enjoy knowing.

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